When it really counted, when Saturday's Utah-UTEP football game was on the line, the best player on the field was nothing more than a 5-foot-10, near-sighted kid from Orem who has been largely ignored this season. Bryan Rowley, whose biggest problem of the afternoon was finding a lost contact lens, almost singlehandedly turned the game around in the second half, although certainly he had help from a reserve quarterback, a reserve halfback and a defense that produced five turnovers.
Trailing by three points in the second half, Rowley and quarterback Mike Richmond hooked up for two of Utah's three unanswered touchdowns to give the Utes a 37-23 victory over UTEP.At last Utah is a winner again. For the Utes, 3-4, it was their first conference victory and first home victory of the season. It also ended a four-game losing streak.
It also ended a lengthy slump for Utah's offense. After a bye week of making changes to improve their unproductive offense (see story on page D2), the Utes had their biggest scoring day of the season.
Quarterback Mike Richmond, who has been shuttled back and forth between the bench and the field all season, relieved Jason Woods in the second quarter. He completed 18 of 29 passes for 252 yards, three touchdowns and two interceptions. After which, he immediately praised his much-criticized linemen, who allowed just one sack all day. Richmond's favorite target for the day was Cliff (Remember Me?) Smith, who, after missing the previous two games, caught nine passes. But Richmond's most effective target was Rowley.
Rowley caught just three passes, but he turned them into 112 yards. One covered 37 yards and set up the Utes' first touchdown of the day. His second catch went for 20 yards and a touchdown. His third catch went for 55 yards and another touchdown.
"That's what you've got to have," said Ute Coach Ron McBride. "The guys have got to make the plays. Rowley has done that since his sophomore year in high school."
But even Rowley has trouble making big plays when he doesn't have the football in his hands. Life for Rowley has not been the same with quarterback Scott Mitchell gone to the National Football League. With Mitchell in town last year, Rowley had 33 catches as a freshman. Without Mitchell this year, he has just 11 catches. Ute quarterbacks have rarely passed to the wideouts this season, at least partially because of poor protection. At least Rowley makes the most of his catches. He has turned his 11 receptions into 377 yards - for a whopping average of 34 yards per catch.
Saturday was a typical day. For roughly half the game, Rowley was a forgotten man and Utah's offense was as anemic as ever. The Utes trailed 9-3 late in the second quarter when they replaced Woods, who had completed just two of six passes for 30 yards.
Richmond, who had been benched in the Utes' last game because of what coaches called "a tired arm," wasted little time. In the huddle, he told his teammates, "Come on, we've lost three in a row at home. Let's not lose another one. Let's pick up the tempo!" Just like that the Utes marched 75 yards in eight plays for a touchdown. The big play: a 37-yard, leaping grab by Rowley at the 16-yard line. That set up the touchdown - a 12-yard pass from Richmond to tight end Mike Anglesey. That made the score 10-9 at halftime.
Wayne Lammle's 27-yard field goal made it 13-9 early in the third quarter, but the lead was short-lived. Mike Perez threw a 72-yard touchdown pass to Ricki Lopez to give UTEP a 16-13 lead.
Rowley Time, again. After driving to the UTEP 20-yard line, Ute coaches called for a slant to Rowley. Richmond rifled a quick pass that glanced off a lineman's helmet. Rowley made a leaping snag, ducked out of two colliding defenders and raced into the end zone.
"The deflection seemed to throw off the (defenders)," said Rowley. "I think that's why they ran into each other."
In the end zone, Rowley was mobbed by his celebrating teammates. One of them playfully smacked his helmet and, in the process, put a finger in his left eye and knocked out a contact lens. While the Utes were preparing for a PAT kick, 26,262 fans watched the unfolding drama in the end zone: Rowley bent over looking for the missing lens, with help from referees, coaches and teammates. Finally, as everyone was about to give up, Ute strength coach Dwight Daub found the thing on the turf.
"I've got to have it," said Rowley. "I was ready to go to the locker room to get another one. I can't see without them."
Rowley would need his eyes for one more big play. With the Utes leading 20-16 and poised at their own 45-yard line, their coaches called for a play that sends Rowley on a deep post. Rowley has often been open on that particular play this season, but Utah quarterbacks have underthrown him. In the huddle, Rowley told Richmond, "Lay it out there so I can run and get it."
Richmond oliged. He threw a flawless, towering tight spiral that Rowley caught up with at the five-yard line between two defenders. Rowley bobbled the ball momentarily, then pulled it in. Touchdown.
"I was thinking about the Air Force game last year when I dropped a pass (that could have won the game)," says Rowley. "All I was thinking was don't drop it, don't drop it. The Air Force game is never out of my mind. Even in practice."
For his part, Richmond was thinking of the starting job. "I hope that showed the coaches," he said. "But you never know."
The rest of the game belonged to the Ute defense. Defensive tackle Mike Lewis recovered a fumble at the UTEP 20 to set up a 33-yard Lammle field goal. Moments later, LaVon Edwards intercepted a Perez pass to set up a fourth-down, one-yard touchdown dive by Brad Foster. That made it 37-16 with 6:11 to play.
UTEP's offense couldn't respond. Because of injuries, the Miners have been forced to start an all-freshman backfield much of the season. A week ago all they could muster were four field goals by Jason Gillespie. He kicked three more field goals in the first half Saturday, from 39, 50 and 35 yards.
Perez, pressed into the lineup because of a knee injury to senior Howard Gasser, completed just 14 of 33 passes for 208 yards, 1 TD and 3 interceptions. He was finally replaced by Gasser following Utah's final touchdown. Gasser immediately took the Miners on an 80-yard drive, capped by a 37-yard touchdown pass to Glen Bishop.
"I thought about putting Gasser in before I did," said UTEP coach David Lee. "However . . . . Howard complained of his leg bothering him following that touchdown drive."
Whoever the UTEP quarterback was, the one force he had to deal with all day was defensive end Jimmy Bellamy, who had three solo tackles, two assists, one tackle for loss, one blocked pass, two sacks and who knows how many hurries. At one point a frustrated UTEP player yelled at Bellamy, "Who in the -- is blocking you!"
Perhaps McBride summed up the Utes' situation best: "We needed this one."
Mike Richmond - Ute QB completed 18 of 29 passes for 252 yards, three TDs and two interceptions.
Receiving - Brian Rowley caught three passes for 112 yards (for an average of 37.3 yards per reception) and two touchdowns.
Defense - Jimmy Bellamy had three solo tackles, two assists, one tackle for a loss, one blocked pass and two sacks.